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Thursday, 15 September 2011

'The Third Policeman' by Flann O'Brien

The Third Policeman is, quite simply, one of the most amazing books you will ever read. I have loved it for many years and in researching for this post I decided to repeat a review from that says it more eloquently than I ever could. Whatever you think it may be - it isn't! For example, how often have you come across the phenomenon of a man who is slowly exchanging molecules with his bicycle so that he and the bicycle are slowly changing into each other. No, I thought not! The book is surreal, satirical, complex, surprising, very funny and one of kind.

Article by Randy Schaub: By no means recently published, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman will, nevertheless, be perpetually new. The literary equivalent of a Tesla invention, The Third Policeman is an astonishingly great book that is so intricate, so improbably effective, that one cannot tell, merely by looking, what makes it tick. The story is a strange dream-journey that at times is so substantial that the reader will find himself double-checking the thickness of the book itself, amazed that the whole thing fits in so slim a volume. If anything, the book presents a problem in that it leaves a reviewer with little 
to say, beyond a couple paragraphs of repetitive praise.
In The Third Policeman, our hero and narrator, a nameless young man with a wooden leg, assists in a money-motivated killing, and, after trying to retrieve the stashed goods some time later, passes into a strange otherness -- a place that superficially resembles the Irish countryside, but which casually disobeys the normal laws of How Things Work. He encounters a small building of impermanent and shifting geometry which turns out to be the local barracks -- it is here that he meets the policemen. The novel has that special quality -- the fantastic made believable, yet retaining its power to amaze -- that is the hallmark of authors like Borges, Kafka, or Barthelme. The events are alternately frightening, baffling, and hilarious, and are brought into three dimensions by perfect, musical prose.

Much of the book’s humor comes from references to the fictional physicist ‘de Selby’, a sort of anti-Newton whose completely absurd theories sound almost plausible in the framework of the novel’s demonic logic. De Selby, noting that light takes a portion of time, however small, to reach its target, came upon the idea that if a network of mirrors were aligned properly a viewer could actually see into the past through a series of repeated reflections:
“What he states to have seen through his glass is astonishing. He claims to have noticed a growing youthfulness in the reflections of his face according as they receded, the most distant of them -- being the face of a beardless boy of twelve, and, to use his own words, ‘a countenance of singular beauty and nobility’.”

But de Selby is merely a side story. The main of the book is devoted to the solution of our young hero’s mystery, and to the further mystery of the bizarre policemen which populate the world he has wandered into. The policemen speak in an infectious, over-wrought dialogue that you’ll have to take care not to pick up yourself. They invent devices that turn noise into electricity. They take gauge readings in a subterranean, industrial version of eternity. I don’t want to delve too far into this storyline, rather I urge you to discover it for yourself. You’ll never ride a bicycle again. 

Published by Dalkey Archive press (named after another O’Brien book), The Third Policeman, although not O’Brien’s most famous book, is one that must not be allowed to be forgotten. More images are painted in its 200 pages than in the massive Pulitzer contenders of today, more fantasy and dream than in a million pages of Tolkien or Rowling. Reading this book will actually improve your imagination, your speech, your intelligence. And you’ll lose weight (provided you don’t eat until you finish). Far fetched claims, I know, but they’ll hold true within the strange laws of The Third Policeman, as sure as the Earth is sausage-shaped.


Alicia said...

Sounds wonderful! I've added it to my Amazon reading list! Thanks!

klahanie said...

Hello, hello, hello, what's all this then?
I say old chap, sound like a must read and thanks for the recommendation.

David said...

Dear bazza,
Immediately after reading your post, I popped over to Amazon and added said book to my wish list. I had never heard of it before, but it sounds strange and wonderful. Looking forward to reading it.
Thanks, bazza.
With Very Best Wishes,

joanne fox said...

I read a Flann O'Brien novel many years ago, but I don't think it was this one. I think it was probably The Poor Mouth - but, oh dear, I don't remember much about it now! Time to reintroduce myself to Flann, maybe. I tend to enjoy books that are a bit quirky and offbeat.

bazza said...

Alicia: It's time to start refilling those bookshelves! (I do read your blog although I don't always comment). A new chapter (pardon the pun) of your life is beginning.

bazza said...

Gary: Dese are weird Oirish policemen; not like your actual British Bobby! Enjoy it.

bazza said...

David: Now I am beginning to feel guilty; I hope everyone likes the book - it might be just me!
'Strange and wonderful' is right.

bazza said...

joanne: Apparently there books of his newspaper column published although I never seen them (or looked for them!)

John said...

Hi bazza,
Sounds like a good read and a departure from what I normally would look at, but will add it to my reading list! It will also be in book form, I just have to have the feel of pages on my fingers! Is that old-fashioned of me?!

bazza said...

John: Yes, Kindle reading doesn't appeal to me. My daughter loves to read electronically - it must be a generational thing! However, I have used a site called The Gutenberg Project which allows you to read 40,000 classic books free of charge on-line. H'mm sounds like a cue for a posting! Watch this space.

THE SNEE said...

Hi Bazza, I am familiar with this book, but have not read it yet. It's one of my bedside book tower books to be read. Maybe now is the time as I recover from my aches and pains.

THE SNEE said...

Hi Bazza,
Ah yes...cue violins. I injured my hip, and secondarily my back. Hence the Alexander Method to which you referred. At least my humerous bone is stronger now. As for Victorian....I'd say my desire to be such is a double edged sword.

bazza said...

Snee: Get well sone!

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Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: I've been away and came to this post rather late. I'm a great fan of this book, and of some of O'Brien's others. There ARE various selections of his journalism, the best of which is probably the volume called THE BEST OF MYLES, which I think is superb – very funny, often surreal, and occasionally angry. In fact I'm on my second copy of it, having worn out the first through continuous re-readings.

bazza said...

Yes Phillip and At-Swim-Two-Birds needs to be read also. It uses characters already created in other authors fiction because, according to O'Brien, there were "already enough fictional characters in existence"! Priceless.